Sheryl Swoopes is one of the most famous women's basketball players in history, with a platform bigger than most current players, and with a voice that many casual fans listen to and respect.
Her words carry weight. What she says matters.
So when she shares thoughts that seem half-baked, that's a problem. And when her words seem to be just casually reinforcing a stereotype about the WNBA that current players have been working hard to reshape, that's also a problem. And when those words also seem vaguely homophobic, that's a really big problem.
Here's what happened: Swoopes spent a few minutes last week talking with espnW after a Nike promotional event, and the resulting Q&A raised plenty of eyebrows around the WNBA.
The key parts:
"The players today, I don't feel like they love the game. There are some, not all of them, but overall I don't feel like the passion is there for the game."
"Skylar's good for this league. She's ... not only is she pretty, actually I think she's beautiful, but she can play, you know what I mean? ... But Skylar has got to start doing more for the league."
"People already have an idea of what the WNBA is about and what it's like, so then when they see [the Brittney Griner/Glory Johnson] type of drama, then it becomes a 'See, I told you so.'"
These ideas aren't the end of a conversation. They're the start of one.
So let's have it. Let's discuss the complicated issues the WNBA faces, issues of race and sexuality. Let's analyze the intersection at which women's basketball sits. And yes, of course, let's also quickly dissect a timeless question: whether the current generation has less "passion" than the previous one.
Indiana Fever guard Layshia Clarendon has a simple take on this last point: "The game evolves, and every generation thinks they're better than the next one."
Of course, whether today's players work as hard as previous ones is trivial compared with two other topics Swoopes parachutes onto: branding and sexuality. The Loyola Chicago coach declined repeated interview requests to clarify her earlier comments, but authorized her longtime publicist, Carlos Scott, to speak on her behalf. Scott elaborated on two key topics: the WNBA's marketing efforts and what he called the "elephant in the room": the WNBA's gay population. "Look, if anybody has earned a pass to speak freely about this league, then it would be Sheryl," Scott said. "She's earned that right."
Swoopes is a six-time WNBA All-Star, and won four titles with the now-defunct Houston Comets. In 2005, she announced that she was dating a woman, becoming the first WNBA star to make such a statement. (That relationship ended in 2009 and Swoopes is currently married to a man.) "No one endured more hell than Sheryl. She went from the face of the league to being treated like a leper," Scott said. "She knows how that ... she knows the brunt of that. Now fast-forward and the league has matured -- hopefully they have, anyway."
Added Scott: "There are segments of society that have the assumption that the whole league, from top to bottom, is gay ... but it's not about their sexual orientation -- truth be told, they've made too much of that. That's what Sheryl is saying: Allow these girls to be who they are; just let them be. Love who you love, but at the same time, the higher your star is on the platform, the less wiggle room you have."
Scott continued: "From a marketing point of view, the league hasn't done the best job. They haven't promoted the softer side of the women in the WNBA; they market them as the female version of the guy's game. From a marketing standpoint, that's structurally wrong. You have to market them for what they are: they're women."
This point of view seems odd, inverted. The WNBA has actually taken plenty of heat over the years for heavily marketing only players who seemed to embody traditional notions of femininity, of beauty, rather than just promoting its best basketball players. And current players are recognizing that selling sex -- or selling the "softer side" -- hasn't worked yet.
In a way, this was the WNBA's unicorn, the myth that kept the league from actually seeing its landscape.
"Sheryl made a comment about Skylar [Diggins] being marketable because she's pretty," said New York Liberty veteran Swin Cash. "The league went through that, marketing a player's looks. We've done that repeatedly. And guess what: The whole 'She's pretty' hasn't gotten us into the mainstream yet, so why are we still talking about that?
"Obviously if you look a certain way in our society, it can be to your advantage, but as a league we need to step away from that and start looking at the real issues: how the skin color of our players affects marketing, and also how sexuality affects it. We need to deal with these issues first. We need to have those conversations first."
In a way, with the help of players such as Cash, the WNBA is slowly embracing an age-old truth: You have to love yourself before someone else can love you. Or, in the case of the WNBA, the league must love and understand itself before it can pinpoint the best way to communicate a clear message to the public.
Rather than encouraging the league to own its space, Swoopes (through Scott) seems to be employing the classic, "I don't have a problem with [fill in the blank]; I'm just concerned because everyone else has a problem with [fill in the blank]."
When asked whether Swoopes believes that the perception the WNBA is predominantly gay hurts the league, Scott paused for a minute, then said: "Yes, from a branding perspective. From a standpoint of, if you're in business, if I own an ice cream shop, then I want to make sure everyone from that community comes to the ice cream shop. I don't want to ostracize myself. So from that perspective, she just feels like the stigma that has long been associated with the WNBA, from a marketing and branding perspective, has, in some regards, hurt. But she also applauds the WNBA for the partnerships they've made."
If this was 2005, perhaps she'd have a point. Of course, that point would be just as wrong then as it is now.
"It would have been awesome for Sheryl to use her platform to say something other than 'Skylar is pretty and Elena Delle Donne plays with the most passion,'" Clarendon said. "Her voice is not representative of the league, and that's dangerous that she has such a platform and such association with the league if she's not going to move the conversation forward."
Part of that forward movement includes speaking astutely about complicated issues. And perhaps nothing has been more complicated for the WNBA over the last six months than dealing with the very public marriage, and subsequent annulment, between Griner and Johnson. When discussing Griner and Johnson, Swoopes alluded to how that incident could confirm people's notions about "what the WNBA is about and what it's like."
"I don't understand why it bothers everyone that people think the league has lesbians," Clarendon said. "I mean, if you don't think there's anything wrong with being gay, why is it offensive that everyone thinks the league is gay?"
New York Liberty president Kristin Bernert offered the following: "If the implication is the WNBA has players that are lesbians, and that's a negative thing, then I would say that this line of thinking is clearly antiquated. When Sheryl played, not many people were out -- in basketball or not -- for fear of backlash in the workplace and in their personal lives. Thank goodness that's changing, but we still have a ways to go."
Once upon a time, Swoopes changed the game.
Back in 1993, she led Texas Tech to an NCAA title, almost single-handedly. She was unstoppable; draining mid-range jumpers over people during an era when nobody did anything over anyone, least of all score.
The game has continued evolving -- on and off the court. And Swoopes is no longer leading the way.
In fact, it seems she has some catching up to do.